Australian circus company Circa’s production Depart comes midway through this year’s LIFT Festival, and it certainly sets the bar high for the shows to be performed in the rest of the festival. LIFT describes itself as “the world-renowned biennial festival that transforms the city into a stage”, and Depart does just that. By bringing circus to the unlikely setting of Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park, Circa has created a unique and memorable production that is haunting and magical in equal parts.
The show, despite drawing upon themes in the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, does not follow a structured narrative, something artistic director Yaron Lifschitz has resisted many a time in his work. With circus shows, however, the lack of a storyline can be a blessing, as a storyline imposed upon an otherwise good production is often wholly incomprehensible. Instead, Lifschitz seems more intent on creating an atmosphere that ties together and informs each act of the performance, and he is very successful in doing so.
This atmosphere, of course, is hugely aided by the hauntingly beautiful setting that is the Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park, an eerie yet serene venue that seems a million miles away from the neighbouring chicken shops by Mile End tube station. The wild and overgrown trees and foliage, from which trapezes and ropes are suspended, provide the perfect backdrop to Lifschitz’s simple but beautifully executed aerial choreography. In many ways the show is much less of a spectacle than other circus productions due to its simplicity, but each nuanced movement is so purposeful and stylised that the performance given by the ensemble more than compensates for the lack of pizzazz. At points I did feel that perhaps the aerial performers were not used to their full potential, as there are frequent moments of absolute stillness in the choreography, but nevertheless the ensemble continues to engage the audience throughout, even when they are motionless. The a cappella choir, of which each member is draped in funereal black gauze, remains an echoing, ghostly presence throughout, adding to the eeriness as the daylight gradually fades.
The stand-out acts of the production are undoubtedly the Chinese pole duo, who innovatively mesh the disciplines of Chinese pole and acrobatics; and the final and longest act of the production, an acrobatics piece that involves the whole ensemble. The promenade set-up generally works well, as the audience is able to be fully immersed in the evening’s entertainment and wander round the performers as though they are an art installation. There is, however, a fair amount of walking involved, and so it is unfortunately not necessarily accessible to all. Some of the acts are so short that I felt it would have been better to have fewer, longer acts, which would equal less walking for the audience and more performance time for the ensemble to show off their skills. This appetite for more spectacle is certainly appeased, though, with the energetic and lengthier finale that really exhibits the daring talent of the cast.
Depart is unlike anything I have seen before, and I would urge anyone to go and see it while it is on. The immersive nature makes for an unusual but magical experience that an audience is unlikely ever to forget. Just keep your fingers crossed that the rain holds off.
Depart is playing at Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park until 26 June as part of Lift Festival 2016. For more information and tickets, see the Lift Festival website. Photo: John Angerson